Voting watchdog group created to monitor state’s voter fraud task force

    Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced April 30 that more than 1 million voters requested absentee ballots for the June 9 election. Raffensperger also formed a new voting fraud task force, a decision that's led to a coalition of voting and civil rights organizations to launch the Voter Empowerment Task Force. Screen grab from Secretary of State press conference

    Georgia’s Secretary of State announced an Absentee Ballot Fraud Task force last month and in response voting rights organizations are joining forces to watch the state’s election watchdog.

    The Georgia NAACP, Fair Fight Action and Black Voters Matter Action Fund and other organizations announced this week the launch of their Voter Empowerment Task Force. The aim is to encourage people to cast their ballots in the June 9 primary election and offer assistance to Georgians who feel intimidated by casting a ballot.

    Georgians can start voting early voting this Monday and people who go to precincts to cast a ballot in person will need to practice social distancing and otherwise plan to make accommodations to contain the spread of COVID-19.

    The Secretary of State’s Office expects a record number of absentee ballots will roll in as voters will want to avoid contact with other people and interacting with the state’s new touchscreen ballot-marking machines. In March, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger took the unprecedented step of mailing 6.9 million absentee ballot applications to voters because the COVID-19 pandemic puts poll workers at particular risk since they tend to be in the older group that’s very vulnerable to infection. 

    Last month, Raffensperger announced his fraud task force composed of prosecutors and senior elections officials to focus on an anticipated increased potential for fraud through the expected a large number of vote-by-mail ballots. The group will investigate potential ballot harvesting, signature mismatches and suspicious numbers of voters with the same address. 

    The task force sparked allegations of voter suppression as quickly as it was formed and the Voter Empowerment Task Force is seen as a counterweight by its organizers.

    The fraud task force is an attempt to stoke fear among voters by focusing issues such as signature mismatches, said Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo.

    “There’s a general divide that younger voters don’t understand or view their signatures being consistent in the same way as older voters,” she said. “Think about the number of voters who registered to vote on an iPad and had their electronic signature taken. Our signatures don’t match place to place and the idea that a signature mismatch issue could get prosecuted is on its face voter intimidation.”   

    The empowerment task force will track reports of intimidating behavior submitted by voters who text VOTE to 70700

    Asian Americans Advancing Justice and other organizations advocating for racial and ethnic minorities are also involved in the task force watching the state’s appointed monitors.

    “We have seen examples where behavior is criminalized when we know there is no criminal intent in their conduct,” Atlanta attorney Allegra Lawrence-Hardy said. “So what we did is build a network of criminal defense attorneys across the state who are available as a resource.”

    A top Raffensperger’s lieutenant says voting rights groups should not be worried that the fraud task force will keep well-intentioned people from absentee voting.

    “The secretary took the unprecedented step to help expand absentee ballot requests in the state of Georgia during COVID-19,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said. “During this time, it is critical to ensure that every vote counts, once.”

    Two of the district attorneys assigned to the fraud task force also dismissed the voter suppression allegations, and that the dynamics of the pandemic called for new measures in case of fraud.

    Yet, the empowerment task force questions the need for Raffensperger’s ballot watchdogs.

    The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported this week only a few cases of absentee ballot violations were handled by the state election board since 2015.

    More than 1.3 million absentee ballots have been mailed to Georgia voters, and Raffensperger estimates that as many of half of votes cast for the June 9 election will be absentee, a significant jump from the typical 6%.

    “The system is working, and voters are showing their confidence in it with their votes sent back by mail or deposited in drop boxes,” Raffensperger said.

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.